Renowned lawyer and human right activist David Matas is being honoured by B’nai Brith Canada, as the organization launches the Matas Law Society.
Matas, who is based in Winnipeg, has long served as B’nai Brith Canada’s senior legal counsel, working closely with B’nai Brith for more than 30 years. He has his own private practise and, among other recognitions for his work, has been appointed a Member of the Order of Canada.
The new society is set to be a primary hub for Jewish members of Canada’s legal community. For now, while COVID restrictions remain, all events will be held virtually, with any Jewish lawyer, paralegal and law student able to join and participate from any location.
“David is doing so many wonderful things all of the time,” said Michael Mostyn, chief executive officer of B’nai Brith Canada. “He really personifies to me what a human rights advocate should be.”
According to Mostyn, “There is a rich history of Jewish law societies in Canada. They are great, established societies. Currently, there’s one in Ottawa and one in Montreal. There used to be one in Toronto, but it closed down decades ago, essentially because the need was no longer there.
“As friends and advocates in the community, we were hearing a lot from the legal community about the need for an activist law society. So, the idea has been brewing for the last number of years. We already have a very strong advocacy program, government relations program and communications program. We wanted to create this law society as a forum for lawyers to get together, network and get some continuing education. It’s also a way for us to give back to the community, for those who care about the fight against antisemitism, racism, and the fight for human rights.”
The society will operate as a subcommittee of B’nai Brith Canada’s League for Human Rights, with news to come of scheduled activities and ways that legal professionals can get involved. Law students can join for free, and the annual cost for legal professionals is $250.
“It’s as easy as, if you’re a law student, paralegal or lawyer and you’re interested in advancing your own career and want to make a difference for the community, you just sign up on the website,” said Mostyn. “Then, you’d be put onto the email list … and, as soon as we will be publicly announcing any activities, those will also be reflected on the website.”
“The time when it was first mentioned to me, it wasn’t mentioned to me as something that would be named after me,” Matas told the Independent. “It was mentioned as a way of getting lawyers involved … [in] legal-specific work related to B’nai Brith.
“There are a lot of legal issues that do arise. In fact, today, I put in an application for an intervention document. It’s a case about Mike Ward. He’s a comedian in Quebec who went after a handicapped guy in the audience in his comic routine.
“The person who was the target of this comic routine complained to the Quebec Human Rights Commission, successfully,” said Matas.
The case is now before the Supreme Court of Canada. “And we applied at B’nai Brith for interveners’ status, based on the experience of Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, who’s a French comedian who has used his comic routine to attack the Jewish community and has been fined many times … and has gone to court many times in France, Belgium and Switzerland. There’s even a European Court of Human Rights judgment on him. So, I suggested we intervene, and B’nai Brith agreed. We applied for intervention status and we got it.”
While Matas enjoys volunteering with B’nai Brith, he will not be able to do so indefinitely, and would love to get some help sharing the workload.
“Obviously, when you’re dealing with a volunteer organization, you want to get as many people involved as possible,” said Matas. “Not just to spread the load, but also you want to get more people aware, committed and involved. Advocacy can’t just be advocacy of one person; it’s not going to carry much weight. It needs to be as many people as possible.”
Mostyn is working on getting accreditation for the society’s seminars, as he and Matas hope that the continuing education component of the law society will help bring together a number of law students, who will eventually go out and work in the field and fuel change.
The society has been launched and many students have already signed up, said Mostyn.
As for what specializations in law those wanting to join the society may want to possess, Matas suggested “discrimination, equality and international law … also, libel law, which is very different from equality law or international law … or we have things about charities, tax and corporations. There are a wide variety of legal issues that come up.
“There’s a lot, in terms of advancements of rights, that occurs through the courts and also through parliaments and legislatures. Legal work isn’t only doing court work. It’s also sometimes advocating changes to law. You need, of course, a public component for that. That may not be lawyers, but often requires some legal expertise to point out the depths of the law and so on. I’d say there’s a real need here and I think it’s a welcome addition to the work that B’nai Brith is doing to add this.
“It’s also a great opportunity for lawyers to contribute and use their skills,” added Matas. “They can talk to each other in a way where everybody knows what they’re talking about.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.